When Amazon.com Inc was developing its most advanced tablet to date, it asked a little-known company to solve a tricky problem with the screen: how to produce rich colors without draining battery life.
With the help of Milpitas, California-based Nanosys Inc, the Kindle Fire HDX 7 became one of Amazon's best-selling tablets, winning critical acclaim for its vibrant display.
The answer? Quantum dots, which are semiconductor crystals 10,000 times finer than a human hair. They convert electrical energy into light and can be manipulated to produce precise colors.
"If you put a regular LCD display next to a quantum-dot LCD display, your grandmother can tell the difference," said Jason Carlson, chief executive officer of QD Vision Inc, which makes quantum dots for Sony Corp's Triluminos TV.
So explosive is demand for this technology that the few companies able to make quantum dots are struggling to keep up. Most are partnering with big display makers to set up industrial-scale manufacturing.
QD Vision and Nanosys are considering going public in the next year or so.
But while quantum dots are cheaper and consume less power than organic light-emitting diodes (OLED), their rival technology at the sharp end of the display business, they cannot yet be produced in the same quantities.
Quantum dots from most suppliers also contain cadmium, a toxic metal whose use is restricted in many countries.
A recent survey by DisplayMate Technologies rated Amazon's Kindle Fire display as the clear winner in color reproduction against Apple Inc's iPad mini and Google Inc's Nexus 7. (bit.ly/1tn58ze)
Smartphone and TV consumers also like quantum dots for their low price. A 65-inch quantum-dot display TV would cost about $3,500, half as much as an OLED-display model of the same size, said Nutmeg Consultants founder Ken Werner.
Werner said quantum dots would retain that pricing advantage for at least three years.
For that reason, the OLED market cannot match the growth rates forecast for quantum dots.
Touch Display Research analyst Jennifer Colegrove said she expected a $9.6 billion market for quantum-dot displays and lighting components by 2023, compared with sales of just $75 million last year. (bit.ly/1mceJ7j)
By contrast, Transparency Market Research projects annual sales of OLED displays at $25.9 billion by 2018 versus $4.9 billion in 2012.
Although quantum dots have been in development since the 1980s, they have only made the leap from laboratory to market in the last decade.
Nanosys shelved its plan to go public in 2004 for want of a viable product. Now the company says an initial public offering is its next step.
Lexington, Massachusetts-based QD Vision considers an IPO to be a possibility in 2015, Carlson said.
Two other quantum dot makers plan to shift their listings to larger exchanges, their CEOs told Reuters. Nanoco Group Plc will move to the London Stock Exchange from the bourse's AIM, and San Marcos, Texas-based Quantum Materials Corp will go to the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq from over the counter.
To supply the volumes needed for large-scale manufacturing, QD Vision has partnered with LG Display Co Ltd, while Nanosys has a manufacturing partnership with a unit of 3M Co.
The shift from OLED technology toward quantum dots has been especially prevalent in TV, where OLED panels have proven expensive for large screens.
Sony and Panasonic Corp, Japan's two largest consumer electronics companies, in December announced an end to their joint development of OLED TV screens.
Patents on the technology used to make quantum dots will make it tough for new entrants to unseat existing producers, said IHS Technology analyst Brian Bae.
Apple last year filed patents on quantum-dot technology, but they involve improving the brightness and quality of displays rather than manufacturing. (1.usa.gov/1rmlKlw)
Even cadmium, which the European Union and other countries restrict for use in electrical and electronic equipment, may not be much of a problem.
Oeko-Institut, an independent research institute hired by the EU, has recommended that quantum dots be exempt from wider legislation on hazardous substances until July 1, 2017, provided the cadmium content per square millimeter of display screen is below 0.2 micrograms.
That is above what is contained in displays with Nanosys and QD Vision's technologies.
For Nanoco, however, the prospect of stricter regulation beyond 2017 might be an advantage. It is the only producer of cadmium-free quantum dots and has recently doubled capacity at its Runcorn plant in northwest England.
The company has a licensing deal with a unit of Dow Chemical Co, which holds exclusive worldwide rights for the sale of its quantum dots for use in electronic displays.
Nanoco CEO Michael Edelman said Dow Electronic Materials had "the engineering strength and muscle to scale into the volumes that are necessary - and quickly."
(Editing by Feroze Jamal, Robin Paxton and Lisa Von Ahn)